Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sam Harris very politely disagrees


Sam Harris' response to Andrew Sullivan has been up for awhile, but I've only gotten round to it now. The most notable thing about Sam's new response is how it differs from my own and Dan Clem's on superciliosus.

Last time I blogged about the Harris/Sullivan debate there was a lot of overlap between how I responded to Andrew and how Sam did. We each addressed the same basic points Andrew made but with different examples and arguments. This time Sam touches on points I didn't cover and I touched on points he didn't cover. There is almost no overlap in which aspects of Andrew's argument that we've each addressed. That's in part a measure of how much was wrong with Andrew Sullivan's argument but also because, for the most part, Sam doesn't deal with Mr. Sullivan's essay any more than necessary. Sam wants the questions he has already asked in his past essays answered.

In all probability we could find all Andrew's arguments refuted in Russell Glasser's and Matt Dillahunty's counter-apologetics encyclopedia, Iron Chariots (wiki.ironchariots.org). We don't really need Andrew to learn about Christianity and Catholicism. We need Andrew only to find out about Andrew, one man with his own peculiar interpretation of his religion.

I just ignored Mr. Sullivan's claim that "we are evolutionarily programmed for faith," while Sam notes that this is debatable (I'd say very debatable) and then Sam accepts it for the sake of argument to show how it doesn't support Andrew's implied claim, that since we are programmed for faith there must be something out there to have faith in. Sam shows how we can't conclude that any specific religious doctrine is likely to be true or even say that religious faith is desirable in our own time, or even compatible with our long-term survival as a species.

Sam on the other hand ignores Andrew's remark that, "God-as-love is no small idea; it is an immense idea." I used that line to launch into several paragraphs on how the idea of God-as-love is an immense contradiction considering how the biblical God supposedly damns people to eternal Hell and how his behavior in the Old Testament was deeply antagonistic and controlling. I noted biblical passages such one about how the Midians were killed, on God's instructions, all of them except the virgin girls.

That's an absurdly tough kind of "love" we find in the Bible. Fundamentalist religions tend to see the world in terms of a battle between good and evil. This Manichaean paranoia is built into the Bible and moderate religion cannot hide it. There is a dualism between good and evil and God and all his acts are, by definition, good. But "good" is NOT really the opposite of "evil." The opposite of "good" is "bad." The opposite of "evil" is "'gracious,' 'nurturing,' 'merciful,'" etc..

This Manichaean paranoia is also evident in the fundamentalist Bush Administration where they see the world in terms of “you’re either with us or against us” which is seen in their specious claims that any criticism of the war in Iraq, or indeed, the Bush Administration is the same as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. They are convinced that their actions are sanctioned by a higher power. This is how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power.

The only real overlap comes from Sam and me both commenting on Andrew's remarks about death. Sam actually made an argument and noted that it's not as difficult to imagine one's own nonexistence as it seems. We don't find it hard to accept that we didn't exist before we were born, so why is it difficult to believe that we'll cease to exist after we die? To quote one of Sam's better lines: "The 14th century got along fine without you (well, not so fine)." Sam even asks, "How is your last essay anything but exhibit A in a criticism of religion as 'the denial of death'?"

I quite agree, and that does seem to be a key factor religious belief; to deny death. However, I didn't make the argument Sam did. I just noted that Andrew mentioned fear and existential panic and then I asked "what is to fear in death?" Death is a reason to be sad, you're saying good-bye to everything you know, but it is Christianity that has tried to make us to fear death with its threats of Hell. Then I noted some ideas on how humanity's idea of the afterlife had evolved to include Hell long before Christianity used the concept and before Judaism adopted it.

Life is indeed too frail and too short for our tastes and we want more. Religion promises us more. It promises us knowledge and hope beyond what science can give us. It's no wonder people feel compelled explore religious claims. We aren't born knowing how the world works and I explored religion myself. I was raised Christian and when I started questioning I read lots of books and I hung around with some liberal Christians and fundamentalists too. Then later I looked at other religions and tried Transcendental Meditation. And after awhile I finally decided religious people didn't really know what they thought they did. There were always these horrible plot holes in their stories. I gave them the chance and they failed to earn my faith. Other ways of knowing, science and skepticism, earned my faith and trust.

Andrew has said, on his blog, after the flaws in his reasoning had already been pointed out by Sam:
Reasoning about faith is a paradox. Some readers have asked when I'm simply going to surrender to Sam. Well: in many ways I have surrendered. I'm fascinated by what reason can illuminate about faith - and have found Sam's arguments enriching to my own faith. But I can no more be reasoned out of faith than I was reasoned into it. I really have no choice in the matter. But I hope to understand it better and to see it in the truest light possible.

Andrew's claim that he can not be reasoned out of a faith that he was not reasoned into is absurd from a rational perspective and there seems to be an assumption of something supernatural in his faith (indeed, it's explicit in some Christian doctrine that faith is a supernatural gift, a grace, from God). This isn't normal human faith. Normal human trust and faith has to be earned. For example, many Americans trusted Bush and Cheney in the run up to the Iraq war. Why not? The majority of Democrats voted for giving Bush the power to start the war. Evidence was offered at the U.N. about aluminum tubes Iraq had that could only be used to process nuclear material. Our government supposedly had access to information we didn't have and it was their job and not ours to know these things. We just expect some kind of competence we can't achieve, without making it our job, from our government when dealing with these details that are over our heads.

For many Americans it was reason enough to trust them and just go on with their lives and let the Bush administration do its job. Voters didn't have a choice until they got to vote again. As they started seeing the claims and predictions of Bush and Cheney falling short their trust fell away and most of us voted for another option, Democrats. There were no WMD. The aluminum tubes weren't used to process nuclear material. The insurgency was not in its last throes as Cheney had claimed. And naturally, as these failures accumulated, more Americans, including Andrew, started to doubt the honesty and/or competence of the people they had elected. Most of Americans stopped trusting them as we naturally should. The Bush administration failed to earn our faith when they had the chance. Even Andrew Sullivan looks upon those who still have faith in the Bush administration today as being a bit irrational. Now why doesn't Andrew's faith in Christianity fail him as much as his faith in the Bush Administration has? Was the fact that Andrew was reasoned into this faith in Bush the reason he could be reasoned out of it? That line of argument doesn't actually make sense.

The evidence against Christianity is stronger than the evidence against the Bush administration's case for war. Yet, Andrew's faith in his religion is not shaken like his faith in Bush was and he doesn't even try to present evidence for having faith outside of mentioning vaguely a few very subjective experiences.

The other side of Andrew's claim, that he did not acquire his religious faith through reason, is rather vague. How did he acquire it? I assume he really acquired it during childhood. He grew up Catholic. However, I think Andrew, if pressed, would claim his faith is really a supernatural gift from God, for that is Catholic teaching, and he really doesn't see it as something he was indoctrinated into as a child. A child has good reason to trust his parents and his teachers and so when they tell the child there is a Santa Claus, there is a God and Jesus loves you, the child trusts them, he has faith in those who are teaching him. These parents and teachers earned this faith by actively supporting a child who can't live on his own. The child as easily believes in Santa Claus as he believes there is continent called Australia where kangaroos hop around. The child isn't reasoned into belief in either Santa Claus or God or Jesus or Australia, children simply trust those whom they depend on and drink in whatever they are taught. This is where Andrew really got this faith (that he was not reasoned into) and if he had been raised by Buddhist or Muslim parents instead he'd have acquired a different faith and on some level Andrew knows this.

There is a big hole in Andrew's logic on this point. Other religions believed with the same sincerity as Andrew's, as Sam points out, speak heavily against Andrew's evidenceless faith being the supernatural gift he seems to think it is. Andrew says he has no choice in the matter. If so, he is saying he doesn't have the ability to consider his own faith rationally when confronted with the evidence Sam has offered. Andrew can't even imagine any evidence that would change his mind. Not Jesus' bones, not the written letters of Roman frauds discussing how they were inventing Christianity for profit, not a message out in deep space written with glowing plasma in letters several times the mass of Jupiter explicitly explaining no religious books are true. Absent from Andrew's considerations is any idea that reason and argument can challenge his faith. His faith is magically above argument and reason. It is supernaturally irrational.

When Sam gives Andrew the Monty Hall deal of offering Andrew three theological choices, it's because Andrew forces Sam into calling out Andrew on what it is Andrew explicitly has faith in for Andrew can't even say what that is. This is the Monty Hall deal Sam offered:
I'd like you to focus, however, on a few competing doctrines in terms of their plausibility:
(1) There is no God.
(2) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.
(3) Christianity is the one true religion, and Catholics have the truest version of it.

Sam asks, "How much money would you (Andrew) be willing to wager on the divinity of Jesus? Would you bet your life on it?" It should be noted that early Christians did bet their lives on it and they became lion food. Andrew has not bet his life, he has only invested time, energy, and emotion in being a Catholic. And given the benefits Andrew claims from his faith, Sam says, "This seems less like an investment and more like a withdrawal of funds." And that maybe more of a cut at Andrew's rational thinking than Andrew realizes. The New Testament and early Christian history is full of the heavy prices the followers of Jesus paid. Andrew's claims of benefit ring hollow in context.

Sam suspects that if proposition (2) were revealed as true, Andrew would be both consoled (who wouldn't?) and not surprised to learn that Christianity was wrong. Considering Andrew's evasiveness about what it is exactly that he believes I'd say Sam is making a smart bet. Wishful thinking and the denial of death seem to be the foundation of Andrew' s faith so far.

Consider the ability of Nigerian scammers to con people out of money often depends on such wishful thinking.

I've gotten spam email telling me I've won the lottery or that a relative has died and left me a fortune. There is a part of me that wants to believe it, but my rational mind tells me this has got to be a scam when I see the scammer wants money from me first or simply too much information, enough to steal my identity. It's called advance fee fraud and it is a confidence (faith) trick in which a sucker is persuaded to advance relatively small sums of money in the hope of realizing a much larger gain.

According to Wikipedia, "The Nigerian scam is hugely successful. According to a 1997 newspaper article they: "have confirmed losses just in the United States of over $100 million in the last 15 months,' said Special Agent James Caldwell, of the Secret Service financial crimes division. 'And that's just the ones we know of. We figure a lot of people don't report them.'"

If you can't confront just how dubious these propositions are then you might just get taken in by a Nigerian con man, or buy a copy of "The Secret," the book by Rhonda Byrne, or fly an airplane into a skyscraper because of your faith. The more faith one invests in these dubious propositions the harder it becomes to evaluate specific claims or article of faith.

A Christian's life is supposedly a pathetic little thing to give in return for his reward in eternity. Are they heroes of truth or are they suckers who got scammed? Or are they something else?

I'd like to see Sam continue that line of speculative questions. Would Andrew sing while being feed to the lions? Have the benefits of his faith been worth the price he might be asked to pay?

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